This Eve Fairbanks written New Republic profile of the Uruguayan president Jose Mujica’s failure from 10 days ago has had me thinking for the last week. Mujica is a true leftist hero who was a member of the guerrilla Tupamaros and spent time in prison during his nation’s dictatorship and has not made moves toward moderation as he aged and rose in the post-dictatorship political world (such as one can argue has happened to the Brazilian leaders of recent years). He is plainspoken and unpretentious. Despite being president, he lives in his same small house, tending his garden, as he has for years. He dresses about as well as I do, even to official events. In short, he lives the values that the modern left loves. He is an authentic figure.
Unfortunately, Mujica is terrible at politics and has achieved basically nothing because he doesn’t know how to play the political game. Some of the internal critique of Mujica is unfair–what can any one person do about rising crass consumerism? But there is great disappointment in Uruguay and around the world among those who follow Latin American left politics. The problem which Fairbanks identifies correctly I think is the desire for authenticity and heroic leadership that may just be central to a lot of people’s belief systems. Here in the U.S., millions of people saw Obama in 2008 as the head of a social movement (which he understandably did not discourage during his campaign) and then were disappointed when he turned out to be the left-centrist politician he always was (which is not to minimize his achievements). Now Elizabeth Warren has taken that role as the single person progressives look to as having the potential to solve the nation’s problems, thus the Draft Warren desires from many on the left. Now, neither Obama nor Warren are very accurate points of comparisons to Mujica. Obama is a politician in a way Mujica will never be while Warren is a policy wonk and professor and even if not a “professional politician” has a different way of coming at the world than the populist Uruguyan president. But in the end, more is probably going to get done by the deeply flawed and dislikable left-centrist or the wonkish charisma lacking career politician than the populist hero.
In other words, in referring to the leftist backlash against Bill DeBlasio, Fairbanks writes:
It’s a pattern: We keep creating saviors whom we expect to single- handedly restore lost values. Then we lash out at them when they inevitably fall short.
On one level, I don’t have much problem with this because even after we elect a left-leaning leader we need to push them from the left and criticize them from the left. We shouldn’t be a support team for President Obama or anyone else. We should try to drag him to our positions. But the problem is actually believing that Obama or Warren or DeBlasio will solve the problems by the force of their will and personality. Until that belief ends, we are likely to continue a cycle of putting a populist on a pedestal and then walking away when the politician has to act in the real world.